`Cashand-cuts' budget advances
Legislative committees pass measure by margins so narrow it's unclear if bills will succeed
OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislative committees on Tuesday passed a measure designed to shore up the ailing state budget, but by margins so narrow its ultimate fate remains in question.
Meeting separately, the House and Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget narrowly passed House Bill 1019, a “cash-and-cuts” patch on a $215 million hole in the current fiscal year budget.
The count was 17-13 in the House and 7-5 in the Senate.
The so-called “Plan B,” brought out after a package of
new revenue and teacher raises failed to get the required three-fourths majority in the House last week, cuts spending by $59 million, uses $60.2 million from revolving funds and $46.3 million in reserve and carryover cash. It also projects $48 million in new revenue by raising from 4 to 7 percent the gross production tax on “legacy wells” already scheduled to go to the standard 7 percent rate over the next 18 months.
The current special session, now in its eighth week, became necessary when the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled lawmakers last session illegally passed a $1.50-apack tax on cigarettes during the regular spring session.
Tuesday's votes leave the beleaguered Legislature on track to possibly bring the special session to a close this week. HB 1019 is expected to be on the House floor on Wednesday, and, if it survives, in the Senate on Friday.
Appropriations to most state agencies would be reduced 2.44 percent on an annualized basis. House A&B Chairman Kevin Wallace, RWellston, acknowledged that will translate to about 3.6 percent for the rest of the budget year because agencies will have to concentrate 12 months of reductions into the final seven months of the budget year.
While higher education is projected to take a 2.24 percent cut, it amounts to slightly more than $17 million due to the large size of the state appropriation. The next largest cut would be $15 million to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state's Medicaid agency. Because of the OHCA's size, that reduction amounts to only 1.46 percent.
Senators used the discussion and debate on the bill to criticize the House's inability to pass the revenue-raising measure last week.
“We were elected to do a whole lot better than this, and I am not doing it,” said Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, whose district includes East Central University. McCortney said lawmakers needed to stay longer to craft a better plan.
Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kim David, R-Porter, said suggestions by some House members that state agencies are sitting on cash or that audits would reveal additional dollars make a “great sound bite” but are not true.
“I have yet to find any agency with bundles of cash sitting around,” David said.
House committee members voiced concerns about cuts to higher education and taking $30 million from a fund set aside for county roads and bridges.
“Is this money going to take away from our county commissioners' ability to maintain roads and bridges?” asked Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw.
Wallace said it would not because maintenance is funded through other sources. Under questioning from Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, however, Wallace said using the $30 million will probably mean the so-called CIRB fund will begin the next fiscal year with a lower balance.
Russ said some county commissioners are concerned the fund will be short in outlying years because of raids on it for operating cash.
Wallace said the fund has a current balance of $209 million and expects revenue from earmarked taxes of $93 million, for a total of $302 million. Wallace said current and expected encumbrances are not expected to exceed $265 million.
Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, pointed out this year's higher education appropriation will be the lowest since 1999, while Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, said he is concerned the cuts to higher education will affect the popular concurrent enrollment program that allows high school students to enroll in college courses at greatly reduced tuition.
Several lawmakers said HB 1019 will only make the next regular session more difficult, with a starting deficit of as much as $650 million projected.
“If we take this money out now without solving this, aren't we kicking the can down the road, and the road is about to come to an end?” asked Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore.
Rep. Leslie Osborn, RMustang, ripped House leadership for, she said, “orchestrating” last week's revenue bill failure.
“We are truly at a precipice we can't come back from,” she said.